Talking Shop

Former headteacher Sue Mulvany gets to the heart of issues that concern you

Q Every Sunday night, as soon as I try to get to sleep, I begin to mull over the things I have to do during the coming week. The situation has got so bad that I'm not falling asleep until 2 or 3am. This problem has got worse as the school year has gone on. How can I break the cycle?

A You probably lead such a busy life that bed-time is the only time available for you to sift through things so you can sort out your priorities. Alas, this is precisely the time least convenient. When someone is trapped in sleeplessness it affects their performance for the rest of the week and the smallest incidents can assume unwarranted importance.

However, it is necessary to reflect on events and relationships, and to organise the practical details of school life, which no written plan can accommodate. Try finding some time in daylight hours to compile a list of things to do. Use a small note-book just for the purpose. Try to cover two or more days' worth of jobs. Perhaps listen to some soothing music as you write.

As the working week progresses, cross out the items in your book that you have completed. See the list shrink. When a page is nearly full of accomplished tasks, transfer the remaining points to a new page and carry on. Tear out the old page and throw it in the bin with gusto. Feel satisfied and in charge of yourself.

This sort of thing can really help the mind. As for the body, try to exercise enough to make yourself physically tired. Walking to the pub with a friend often works! And when you get into bed don't allow yourself to think about school - read till you drop.

Q I'm a supply teacher and I have recently taken on a new class. When I collected the dinner money during my first week, I was told by a child that the previous teacher used to pay for him when his mum forgot to send the money. I've noticed that the child is thin and looks uncared for. How can I handle the situation without making the boy feel let down?

A He has already been let down. The actions of the previous teacher were misguided.

No doubt she believed she was helping, but in fact was doing more harm than good. The child's family has been denied their right to free school meals if they are in financial difficulties.

Your predecessor has used the child as a way to meet her own need to care by paying the dinner money, which has not been the best way of responding to these issues of neglect.

There should be a procedure in every school to guide staff who are responding to cases where children need protection and, as a new member of staff, you should have been given the information. Usually it is the headteacher who should be informed.

Q Staff meetings in our school are odd events. People rarely say what they think, although outside the meetings there is a lot of constructive discussion. It is as if once the meeting starts, freethinking is inhibited. What can we do to improve the situation?

A Funny things can happen in groups, especially when there are decisions to be made about the future. First of all, analyse the elements that are at play. What roles are represented at meetings that are not represented when informal discussions are taking place? What effect have the people in those roles on the agenda and length of time for discussion?

Make sure the agendas or patterns of meetings reflect a good balance between items to do with planned school improvements and those of immediate concern. Is the venue of meetings conducive to comfortable discussion? If not, meet somewhere else and provide drinks and snacks if the meeting is late.

Do certain people exercise too much power over others so they feel foolish making suggestions? This can sometimes happen unintentionally. Such groups need to commit themselves to allowing each member to have a say and to respecting the contribution each makes.

There are structured ways in which groups can ensure each voice is heard equally. Individuals need to understand that comments and ideas, once uttered, belong to the group. They are not tied to the person and if they are amended or rejected it doesn't mean the individual who offered them is rejected or valued less. If this message is spoken, heard and understood then everyone feels safe, the school works as a team and improvement is rapid.

Send your problems to Sue. Write to her at The TES, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY, or e-mail us at You can also leave hints about this month's problems at the Staffroom on The TES's website at

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